The workshops, held at the Latchis Theater and the Marlboro College Graduate Center, offered local government and business leaders a chance to learn about how they might take advantage of the economic stimulus, as well as the opportunity to meet the state and federal officials who are tasked with managing the programs.
To a packed audience, Windham County Senator Peter Shumlin said it was incumbent on Vermonters to take advantage of the opportunities offered through the stimulus and through Vermont’s congressional delegation. “I want Vermont to come out of this (economic downturn) better than we went in,” he said. “I’d like to thank Senator Leahy for making sure Vermont got more than its fair share of the stimulus.”
Leahy said Vermont had worked hard to be first in line for the stimulus funds, and no other state had held any kind of public informational event like the workshops people were about to participate in. He also urged Vermonters not to politicize the stimulus process. “We’re all in this together,” he said. “My vote was for Vermonters. We have to take advantage of this legislation and we have to do it effectively. Rebuilding the economy is not going to be easy. It’s going to take wise and courageous action. The tools we need are in this package, and the information you need to access it is in these workshops.”
Governor Jim Douglas said his administration would strive to invest in projects that would have an impact “long after these federal funds are gone. Vermont is ahead of the game in implementing a plan,” he said. “We have to invest wisely.”
The day’s agenda included workshops on funding available for families, business, health and human services, infrastructure projects, emergency and police services, and other topics. There was even a workshop on doing business with the federal government – a sort of “bureacracy 101” for local officials.
Wilmington Town Manager Bob Rusten attended a workshop on energy, hoping to access funding to improve energy efficiency in the town’s buildings through weatherization and other upgrades. Rusten said it still isn’t clear if the town will qualify for funding, but the workshop was helpful in finding out what’s available and how to apply. “Some of the information isn’t clear yet and it will require some additional follow-up,” he said. “It was nice to see (state and federal officials) come down here, but there are still a lot of details that need to be worked out over the next month.”
Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laura Sibilia attended a workshop on infrastructure and economic development. The workshop included presentations from the state agency of transportation, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
Sibilia says her sense is that the federal stimulus funding is not an opportunity for “a la carte” project planning, or to dust off old ideas and start working on them again. “One of the things I found out was that if projects aren’t ready to go now, they’re not going to get any funding in the first phase of funding, and if they’re not ready for next year, they aren’t going to get anything in the second phase,” she says. “This is proof positive that plans need to be developed and pursued. We can’t throw in the towel and say we won’t be able to do it.”
Because projects need to be “shovel-ready” to qualify for the funds, Sibilia says she’s concerned about the Douglas administration’s plan to cut state jobs in departments connected to the permit process. “This is a bad time to be cutting employees in those departments that are already backlogged,” she says. “We need the state’s help to be able to use those funds. Our federal delegation has done a great job of securing funding for Vermont, but if we don’t have the infrastructure to get the permit process completed, any money Vermont doesn’t use will go to another state.”
Both Sibilia and Deerfield Valley Transit Association Executive Director Randy Schoonmaker said the workshops offered them insight into existing programs that might apply to local projects.
“There are community development block grants that might be available for the Riverwalk,” Schoonmaker offers as an example. “It offered food for thought, anyway.”